David Rudisha’s 800m mastery unites Usain Bolt and Mo Farah in awe

Sean Ingle in Kingston
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Kenya’s David Rudisha winning the 800m final at the London 2012 Olympic Games in a world record time. </span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Kenya’s David Rudisha winning the 800m final at the London 2012 Olympic Games in a world record time. Photograph: Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty Images

It sounds like a beginning of a strange joke, only it’s not. Usain Bolt and Mo Farah really are sat in a hotel room in Jamaica discussing who would win a 600m race between them. “I think I’d have a good chance,” says Farah. “Just because of my endurance.” Bolt throws him a look of mock-horror. “So what about me, you and David Rudisha?” Farah laughs. “That completely changes it,” he replies, chuckling. “Rudisha is strong. He has run 1min 40sec for 800m. He could jog and still have us.”

Rudisha, the great Kenyan stoic, is sat between the pair saying nothing. Bolt turns to him. “What do you think?” The double Olympic 800m champion is aware that he is on Bolt’s home turf in Kingston and doesn’t want to cause offence. “Er … well …,” he begins. Everyone cracks up.

Scroll to continue with content

Eventually, Rudisha decides that honesty is the best policy. “I have a bit of an advantage because I do a lot of 400m and 800m in training and races,” he says. “So I don’t think you have a chance there.” Cue more laughter. But there is no comeback. Everyone accepts that Rudisha tells it as it is.

A few minutes later, with the Observer, Rudisha makes another startling admission. He believes he is in even better form than last year, when he glided away from the field to win his second Olympic gold in Rio in 1min 42.16sec – his fastest time since that glorious night at London 2012 when he smashed his own world record and was hailed by Sebastian Coe as producing the greatest moment of those Games.

“What’s changed is that I have been able to do a lot more mileage again,” says Rudisha softly. “That is something I lacked since I seriously injured my knee in 2013. After that, if I attempted long runs I would feel some pain and have to stop because I didn’t want any setbacks. But I was able to put more work in during the winter and I am really happy.”

Rudisha did not looked overly impressive when he was beaten by the 19-year-old Kenyan sensation Kipyegon Bett in Shanghai last month. However, he explains that he had a minor strain, which has now cleared, and that his recent times in training over 400m and 300m – which he always uses a benchmark for how he will perform in competition – have surprised and delighted him. “I am in a better form than last year and I feel fantastic,” he says. “I just needed to do some fine‑tuning and I think my season will be great.”

Understandably, he has tunnel-vision focus on London in August and winning a third world championships title to go with his 2011 and 2015 victories. “I am really excited to go back to the stadium where I made history,” he says.

“The UK will always have a special place in my heart. The fans always welcome me and it has a great history of middle-distance athletes, from Sir Roger Bannister to Steve Ovett, Steve Cram and Lord Seb Coe.”

Rudisha has run six of the eight fastest 800m times in history and for years looked almost invincible. But, for the first time, he admits he is struggling to come to grips with losing after his career-threatening injury. “Mentally I used to be a very strong,” he says. “I never wanted to lose. But the injury affected me. When I came back I lost a lot of races. And sometimes I would be a little bit reluctant in some races. Afterwards I’d look back and say to myself: ‘I don’t think I have done my best there.’”

Slowly, though, the magic returned. “In 2013 and 2014, when I had that pain in my knee, it was tough. I love running, but it is a short career. So no matter how hard it is, no matter how painful it is, I thought to myself: ‘If you love something you can do it.’ If it was not for the love of sport I would have struggled to come back.”

Rudisha hopes to be a role model for young Kenyans and notes with pride how kids chase after him shouting “Rudisha. Rudisha” while he is jogging around the hills of Iten.

“They are always there,” he says, smiling. “Even when we are doing track sessions they like making fun of me, saying things like: ‘You can’t beat us – we want to run against you.’ It is always fun and I love that.”

His deep enjoyment of running has now been passed to his seven-year-old daughter, Charin. “She used to say ‘No, don’t want anything to do with running. I don’t want to run like Daddy’. But now she loves it. When I am training at home we do some exercises and jog together.”

Rudisha’s father, Daniel, won a 4x400m silver medal at the 1968 Olympics. Could she be the third line of a Rudisha dynasty? “Well, she has good genes – I can say that,” he says, laughing. “But it is hard. Running is not only about talent and genetics. It is also about hard work and your spirits.”

There is nothing wrong with Rudisha on that front and, at 28, he has enough time on his side to compete at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. “I would love to emulate Bolt and have three Olympic gold medals,” he says. “Wouldn’t that be fantastic?”

What to read next